Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

What Hallucinations Reveal About Our Minds

In this fascinating TED-Talk, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks discusses Charles Bonnett syndrome, a strange condition where visually impaired people experience lucid hallucinations.

Our good friend Paul Devereux has written on this topic previously, in Darklore Volume 1 and Fortean Times, and you can find a version of his article at Brainwaving.com. It's a personal story involving a friend of Paul's that suffered from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which got him thinking about the 'reality' of our perceptions:

The Charles Bonnet Syndrome is merely an observation, not an explanation, so what exactly causes these hallucinations? On that subject the medical literature becomes less helpful, and it is clear, even admitted, that no one really knows. I could buy the idea that patches of light in the central visual region could be related to pathological conditions in the macula, and could cause people and writing to apparently disappear intermittently, but faces at the window, and people dressed in various costumes walking toward churches or driving vehicles or holding street parties seem more of a push. This was especially the case for me in that I was also aware that people claiming to encounter spirits, whether psychic mediums or ordinary individuals in spontaneous cases, tend to report seeing them in their peripheral vision rather than directly, “head on”. I could not help but wonder with these macular degeneration visions whether we were dealing with hallucinations or spirits or some subtle level of perception between them both.

Although the actual mechanics are currently unknown, the basic official theory explaining the visions associated with visual impairment like macular degeneration is that the brain, on receiving incomplete visual data through the eyes, “fills in” the missing elements as best it can – a kind of “best fit” process. In fact, there is evidence that it is only the input of a constant visual stream through our eyes that prevents the brain making up its own imagery in any case. This has been demonstrated in sensory deprivation experiments in which subjects who are placed in total blackout conditions for long periods experience hallucinatory imagery to lighten their darkness. All of us experience this in another form and to a lesser degree when we dream.

If this explanation is true, then a whole host of other implications are raised. If animated figures in costumes, shades of the dead, processions leading to physically real churches, whole landscapes and entire, complex scenes can be rendered in intricate detail by the brain struggling to “fill in” gaps in sensory data, what then is “reality”? Could what we take to be concrete materiality be a kind of hallucination sustained by cultural conditioning, and are paranormal phenomena simply glitches in that illusion? Are the different, spirit-based worldviews held by tribal societies simply other forms of hallucination no less “real” than our own? Is the Hindu doctrine of apparent reality being but the “Veil of Maya”, of illusion, correct?

Whatever the answers are to such questions, one thing is certain – we do not see with our eyes alone.

An interesting point made by Oliver Sacks is that around 10% of visually impaired people have these hallucinations, but only about 1% report it to their doctor, as they fear being labeled "crazy". It's a similar predicament to people who have near-death experiences and other seemingly paranormal interactions, and suggests that there is somewhat of a deleterious effect to the growing rationalism of the modern world. In fact, we are strange creatures who regularly see and experience strange things - we shouldn't "believe" them as a matter of fact, but we should at least acknowledge more often that they are a built-in part of our perceptual range.

Dr. Sacks' latest book, Hallucinations, which obviously touches on this topic, will be released later this year and can be pre-ordered via the given link.

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Not Feeling the Future: New Bem Replication Fails to Find Evidence of Psi

Crystal Ball

Another possible hit this week for Professor Daryl Bem's controversial "Feeling the Future" experiments, which found positive evidence for precognition, with the publication of a large-scale replication study which found no psi effect. The full paper, "Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi", is freely available for download, and I recommend downloading it and having a good read. No doubt many will suffer (as I did) through the more technical descriptions of statistical analysis, but amongst that there is fascinating, respectful discussion of the Bem experiments and this latest replication attempt. In addition to the experiment results, the paper also features a meta-analysis of all replications attempted so far, which found again no significant evidence for precognition effects.

For those that can't make it all the way through the paper, skeptic Steven Novella already has a large write-up of the new paper at Neurologica, in which he addresses many of the key points, as well as giving a broad overview of the entire Bem controversy.

Bem’s studies have not fared well in replication. Earlier this year Ritchie, Wiseman, and French published three independent replications of Bem’s 9th study, all negative. Of further interest is that the journal that originally published Bem’s article had declined to publish Ritchie et al’s paper claiming that they don’t publish replications. This decision (and editorial policy) was widely criticizes, as it reflects an undervaluing of replications.

It’s good to see that the journal has relented and agreed to publish a replication. Galak, LeBoeuf, Nelson, and Simmons should be commended, not only on their rigorous replication but their excellent article, which hits all the key points of this entire episode.

The researchers replicated experiments 8 and 9 of Bem (they chose these protocols because they were the most objective). They conducted 7 precise replications involving a total of 3,289 subjects (Bem’s studies involved 950 subjects). Six of the seven studies, when analyzed independently, were negative, while the last was slightly statistically significant. However, when the data are taken together, they are dead negative. The authors concluded that their experiments found no evidence for psi.

I leave it to more qualified minds than mine to authoritatively assess the merits of the paper. For what it's worth, however, here's my thoughts (caveats abounding):

I would imagine Bem would criticize this new replication on a key point, one which Novella glosses over in his assessment (in calling it a "rigorous" and "precise" replication) - that four of the seven experiments were done online, not in the lab. Additionally, one of the online experiments (#7) had roughly 2400 respondents, so across all 7 tests the amount of 'lab' results is only about 12%. This online aspect brings in a number of points of failure, from inattentiveness and distraction, right through to unintentional (by knowing about and thus being prepared for the 'surprise' test at the end) or intentional sabotage - it's worth noting that the availability of the online test was passed around on skeptical forums such as the JREF and Rational Skepticism. Bem himself has criticized a previous paper from Galak et al. on this very point, saying when you do the test online, "you lose total control over it". Interestingly, two of the three lab-based experiments done by the researchers had significantly lower p-values (p=0.04 and p=0.10) than the other tests.

Additionally, the researchers acknowledge explicitly that after reading Bem's replication notes, they noticed that "there were at least three differences between our experiments (which followed the procedure described in Bem’s published paper) and the full procedure actually employed by Bem." This included using a different word set to Bem for some tests. Steven Novella notes in his blog summary the importance of precise replications, saying that "a precise replication should have no degrees of freedom." I find it hard to imagine how he reconciles this view with his support of the paper (describing it multiple times as a "precise" replication), and therefore that it "provides further evidence against psi as a real phenomenon, and specifically against the claims of Daryl Bem".

Having said that, the paper itself does an admirable job of explaining these limitations/problems, and providing alternate analysis excluding some of these factors which appears to still show support for their conclusions. However, I had the distinct feeling that some of those exclusions were rather arbitrary (for instance, how to exclude possible sabotage), and in the end I'm not sure that they overcome the larger problem of (a) the massive online component and (b) the lack of precise replication, in terms of making this latest study acceptable as a true replication of Bem's experiments. Nevertheless, fascinating reading and well worth your time.

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Why Being Called a 'Bird Brain' Might Now Be a Compliment

We posted last week about the growing evidence for animal consciousness in various species. Here's another to perhaps add to the list - a bird that appears to be using bait to catch a fish.

Given the size of the piece of bread it's using, it obviously prefers fish to grain. The odd bit is that it seems to be happy letting the fish eat the bread until the very last piece...surely it's not 'fattening up' its prey before eating?

(via @BryanAppleyard)

This Man Was a Psychic Spy for the U.S. Government

In the 1970s, Stanford Research Institute developed a protocol that they hoped would allow people to access their inner psychic talents, in order to view distant targets (in both time and space) without using their regular five senses. Though such talents have been reported throughout history, and labeled as "traveling clairvoyance", the SRI researchers gave their distinct protocol its own specific name: remote viewing.

The C.I.A. became interested in SRI's remote viewing research, not least due to concerns that the Soviets already had such a capability, and funded a $50,000 study for further experimentation and refinement of the protocol. And in the late 1970s, the U.S. Army joined the party by commissioning its own remote viewing project. During the 1980s the army continued with remote viewing under a variety of project names, which are often grouped together under the most well-known of them, Project Star Gate.

The first man recruited into the Army's remote viewing program was Joseph McMoneagle, and even today he's still often referred to simply as "Remote Viewer No. 1". Drafted into the first 'psychic intelligence' unit, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, McMoneagle noted that his decision to join the project, after twenty years as an Intelligence NCO, came down simply to concerns about the safety of his country:

When I was first exposed to the possibility of remote viewing as an intelligence threat, I took it very seriously because the evidence already extant was significantly compelling to demand attention.

And decades later, after continuous study and practice of remote viewing, McMoneagle says he's "more convinced than ever that there is something going on that we should be very concerned about...the greatest threat to my nation and possibly the single greatest discovery in our species' history...remote viewing, when used appropriately, has a capacity for extensively destructive and creative contributions in our development."

In the one hour video interview* above, McMoneagle explains remote viewing, and his own involvement over the past 30 odd years. You can also read his own account of the history of 'Project Star Gate' in his book The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Psychic Spy (Amazon US and UK).

And if you want to train up as a psychic spy yourself, you can download the original co-ordinate remote viewing (CRV) manual developed by SRI and the U.S. Army (though the primary author appears to be artist and original remote viewer Ingo Swann). I only pass on the link because I have encased my office within a Faraday cage...

* Beware the god-awful chime at the beginning of the video, it just about woke up my whole house.

Mitch Hedberg on the Need for Day-Dreaming

Mitch Hedberg was one of my favourite comedians - like Steven Wright, his off-center takes on the seemingly drab minutia of everyday life were always a good tonic for those times when reality and daily routines were closing in (not to mention, the pure benefits of laughing out loud). Sadly, Hedberg died in 2005, aged just 37.

So I was fascinated by the short documentary posted above, in which his wife Lynn Shawcroft discusses Hedberg's writing process. The following excerpt in particular resonated with me, as I've been contemplating a lot lately how much my life is dominated by 'inputs' - the constant stream of of phone, internet and TV content - and whether that type of lifestyle has had a deleterious effect on my own ability to enjoy the act of creation:

One thing I learned from Mitch about writing, and which probably attracted me to him, was he was a huge proponent of day-dreaming. I think he considered hanging out and thinking an extremely valuable way to spend your time. Like just hanging out and thinking, or allowing your thoughts to drift. Setting up your life so that you can have that time to use your imagination.

It's a wonderfully personal and touching look at Hedberg from the point of view of his long-time partner, well worth watching.

(via @MattStaggs and Splitsider)

Ouija Board in the Laboratory

Here's an interesting piece of recent research into the the decision-making influence of the unconscious mind, that uses a parlour game believed by many to allow communication with the dead. Hélène Gauchou, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia turned to the Ouija Board as a means of 'communicating' with the hidden side of our mind:

To keep things simple her team has just one person with their finger on the planchette at a time. But the ideomotor effect is maximised if you believe you are not responsible for any movements - that's why Ouija board sessions are most successful when used by a group. Ouija BoardSo the subject is told they will be using the board with a partner. The subject is blindfolded and what they don't know is that their so-called partner removes their hands from the planchette when the experiment begins.

The technique worked, at least with 21 out of 27 volunteers tested, reports Gauchou. "The planchette does not move randomly around the board; it moves to yes or no. It seems to move almost magically. None of them felt responsible for the movement." In fact some subjects suspected that their partner was really an actor - but they thought the actor was deliberately moving the planchette, never suspecting they themselves were the only ones touching it.

Goucher's team has not yet used the technique to get new information about the unconscious, but they have established that it seems to work, in principle.

For an excellent history of the Ouija, see Mitch Horowitz's article devoted to the topic in Darklore Volume 1 (Amazon US or Amazon UK), and also check out The Museum of Talking Boards website for a great collection of designs through the past century or so.

Awake Within a Dream

Our friends at Reality Sandwich have added a feature article excerpted from Paul and Charla Devereux's Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities (Amazon US or Amazon UK), which Daily Grail Publishing released a couple of years ago. The excerpt is titled "Awake Within a Dream", and offers a few basic ways to access this neglected human talent for your own benefit:

You have to find ways to alert yourself within a normal dream that you are dreaming, but the level of consciousness that has to be achieved requires a fine balancing act between falling back into unaware dreaming, Lucid Dreaming Book Coveror waking up from sleep altogether. It is virtually a form of yoga that can only be learned through trial and error. Emotional control, even a measure of detachment, is necessary to maintain a lucid dream experience for any length of time. If you become too excited, you wake up; if too absorbed in the content of the lucid dream, there is a risk of slipping back into ordinary, non-aware dreaming. "Like crossing a narrow board, you must keep your balance to avoid falling one way or the other," Garfield advises.

...We have given each of the lucid dream induction "packages" described below a "brand name". Look at all these packages as if you were browsing along a supermarket shelf. Pick out those that have an initial appeal for you, and leave the others until another visit if necessary.

Go check out the full article at Reality Sandwich, and also take a look at another excerpt from the book posted here on TDG, "Introduction to Lucid Dreaming". Better yet, go grab a copy of the complete book for your continued personal reference from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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The Third Man Factor

In his book The Third Man Factor (Amazon US and Amazon UK), author John Geiger goes in search of an extraordinary phenomenon that has previously received little coverage: the oft-repeated experience of people at the very edge of death who feel the presence of an incorporeal being who encourages them and guides them to safety. Geiger tells the stories of 9-11 survivors, mountaineers, astronauts, explorers and prisoners of war who have reported the 'third man factor'. One of those who Geiger talked to is climber James Sevigny, who was caught in an avalanche which killed his friend Richard Whitmire, and left him with a broken back in two places, a broken arm, internal injuries and more. In the video below, Sevigny himself tells of what happened next:

The name of the phenomenon - "the third man factor" - may seem odd, given experiences like Sevigny's in which the presence was more a 'second man'. But Geiger explains that the label arose in the wake of the experience of the famed polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who reported the same phenomenon as Sevigny and many others. Geiger's retelling of Shackleton's experience makes plain the harrowing nature of the explorer's failed expedition, and is worth a read. Here's the abridged version:

What, exactly, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men encountered on their harrowing crossing of the south polar island of South Georgia is a question that has confounded historians and inspired Sunday sermons ever since. The apparition impressed Shackleton as being not of this world, a manifestation of some greater power. It made its appearance near the end of the explorer's grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, at the very point when Shackleton stood to ensure his survival and that of his men - or to lose everything in the attempt.

...The expedition's ship Endurance had threaded its way through the freezing Weddell Sea, becoming trapped by ice even before Shackleton could disembark for his attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent.

After being carried in the ice for nearly ten months, the ship was abandoned on October 27, 1915. Shackleton wrote: "She was doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain. I ordered all hands out on the floe"... As the retreating crew picked their way for five months across the rotting ice, dragging the Endurance's small boats, some were overwhelmed by their predicament: 'The men were not normal; some of them wanted to commit suicide and [Shackleton] had to force them to live'.

On April 9, 1916, fifteen months after the ship first became trapped, the men made an escape from the ice, launching the small boats on the open sea. Huddled in the boats, they were now tormented by the surging seas... Having spent three nights in the boats, Shackleton doubted all the men would survive a fourth. Then they saw the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island, a desolate outcrop off the Antarctic Peninsula, and landed, staggering to shore like a band of drunkards...

Knowing there was no chance a relief expedition would find them, Shackleton decided to leave the majority of his crew behind on Elephant Island and take five men with him in one of the small boats... His goal was a whaling station on the British possession of South Georgia, more than eleven hundred kilometres away.

In an astounding feat of navigation, the small team made it to South Georgia, battling severe dehydration, starvation, frostbite, and eventually having to land their boat in the midst of hurricane-like conditions. And yet at this point, they still found themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station, The Third Man Factorand so faced a further journey of 38 kilometres (as the crow flies) traversing the island's two previously uncrossed mountain ranges.

A month after leaving Elephant Island, Shackleton and two others (Frank Worsley and Tom Crean) set out for the whaling station across the ice fields and glaciers, with just fifteen metres of rope and a carpenter's adze substituting for an ice axe. And somehow, against all odds, they made it across - and all of the Endurance's crew survived.

The odd part of it all is that afterwards, all three men claimed to have felt that there was someone else with them on that journey. When Shackleton came to tell the story of the crossing of South Georgia he revealed

...that he had a pervasive sense, during that last and worst of his struggles, that something out of the ordinary had accompanied them:

"When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow-fields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-pace on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three."

He had said nothing to the others, but then, three weeks later Worsley offered without prompting: "Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us." Crean later confessed to the same strange sensation. Each of the three men had come to the same conclusion independently of the others: that they had been in company with another being.

...Strangely, history remembers Shackleton's visitor on South Georgia not as a fourth - Shackleton, Worsley, Crean and one mysterious other - but as 'the third man'. This is because T.S. Eliot referred to the phenomenon in 'The Waste Land', written in 1922 and arguably the most famous English-language poem of the twentieth century, but used poetic licence to alter the number.

You can read a more detailed excerpt from the book at John Geiger's website, or better yet just purchase the book itself from Amazon US (as of this writing, an absolute steal at $5.98) or Amazon UK.

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

Morpheus Mind-phu..

Not sure where I came across this one (apart from the memebase.com tagline) - but pretty darn good! Wonder what percentage it works for? And does it mean you took the red pill or the blue pill?

Consciousness and the Double-Slit Experiment

A quick heads-up on a new experiment performed by parapsychology researcher Dr Dean Radin (with others) which could provoke debate with its publication in Physics Essays: "Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern". Basically, the results may just put the consciousness aspect back into the quantum world. Here's the abstract (full PDF downloadable at the link above):

A double-slit optical system was used to test the possible role of consciousness in the collapse of the quantum wavefunction. The ratio of the interference pattern’s double-slit spectral power to its single-slit spectral power was predicted to decrease Double-slit interference patternwhen attention was focused toward the double slit as compared to away from it. Each test session consisted of 40 counterbalanced attention-toward and attention-away epochs, where each epoch lasted between 15 and 30 s. Data contributed by 137 people in six experiments, involving a total of 250 test sessions, indicate that on average the spectral ratio decreased as predicted (z=-4:36, p=6·10-6). Another 250 control sessions conducted without observers present tested hardware, software, and analytical procedures for potential artifacts; none were identified (z=0:43, p=0:67). Variables including temperature, vibration, and signal drift were also tested, and no spurious influences were identified. By contrast, factors associated with consciousness, such as meditation experience, electrocortical markers of focused attention, and psychological factors including openness and absorption, significantly correlated in predicted ways with perturbations in the double-slit interference pattern. The results appear to be consistent with a consciousness-related interpretation of the quantum measurement problem.

Dean also notes in his blog posting that his team has also "completed data collection for two replications of the experiments reported in this publication. Both were statistically significant and in the predicted direction."

Hope to cover this in a bit more detail to this in an upcoming post once I have the time to dig into it properly.